Rebirth of Tippett’s The Ice Break in a Birmingham Warehouse

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tippett, The Ice Break: Soloists, Birmingham Opera Company,  Local Chorus of 106 – Jonathan Laird (Chorus Master), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (conductor), The B12 Warehouse, Birmingham, 8.4.2015 (GR).

Lev, Teacher and pacifist, released after 20 years prison and exile – Andrew Slater
Nadia, Lev’s wife, who emigrated with their baby son – Nadine Benjamin
Yuri, Their son, a student and second generation immigrant – Ross Ramgobin
Gayle, Yuri’s current girlfriend – Stephanie Corley
Hannah, Gayle’s friend, a hospital nurse – Crystal E Williams
Olympion, World Champion and Hannah’s lover – Ta’u Pupu’a
Luke, A doctor – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Police Lieutenant – Adam Green
Astron, The messenger – Anna Harvey and Meili Li


Director – Graham Vick
Designer – Stuart Nunn
Movement – Ron Howell
Lighting – Giuseppe Di Iorio

This show had the familiar stamp of Graham Vick and the Birmingham Opera Company about it: an enthusiastic bunch of local volunteer performers, a genuine quality in the presentation of its music, a generous helping of sex and violence, and something to discuss afterwards. Attending the fourth in its brief run of five performances was as exhausting as is usually the case with BOC productions – tiring on both feet and back with its customary promenade modus operandi, and mentally demanding in order to stay abreast of all the goings-on. However with Tippett’s The Ice Break lasting only seventy-five minutes (much less than others tackled by BOC during the thirteen years between their 2002 Fidelio and last year’s Khovanskygate) the trials of keeping up with everything had been lessened; so it was more of a cakewalk than previous marathons.

Staged in a cavernous warehouse that just a few months ago was the stockroom for the wares paraded at the annual German Christmas Market, it is sad to reflect that downtown Birmingham has no shortage of such vacant industrial premises, although adapting them in the sake of art is positive. And what an excellent use Vick and his familiar team made of their vast playhouse, ‘play’ being the operative word since BOC’s mantra is geared as much to the local chorus and actors as to the audience. Indeed an observer/participant-helper ratio of less than 2/1 per outing puts things into perspective. Vick’s ethos of inclusion or be damned was spelt out in his 2010 presidential address to Birmingham University Music Society – Opera: touching new lives, inventing new worlds. Such a practice of engaging the local community while reflecting the demographics of a multi-racial city, was transparently presented in this reworking of Tippett’s undervalued (on this evidence anyway) The Ice Break.

Before events proper began, the 400 or so attending on 8th April 2015, were able to see that the setting was a present-day airport arrival terminal, Vick’s concept effectively realised by the designs of Stuart Nunn. All the expected characters were on view: passengers with cases on wheels, airline personnel with clipboards, air crew checking watches, intimidating armed guards, meticulously attentive cleaning operatives, all decked out in the splendid costumes of Caroline Mirlin and her team. The trappings were authentic too: the huge ‘WELCOME to the UNITED KINGDOM’ panel, the arrival information board, the Tannoy ‘Last Call’ announcements, the giant LED screen with its breaking-news items, the luggage buggy, the commercial hoardings with Costa and Gucci prominent and the obligatory duty-free shop. Two large sloping platforms, a mini-stage, moveable gantries and disembarkation structures, all facilitating audience eye-lines and voice carry, completed the working space; cooperation between Stage Manager Maggie Mackay and Vick had again come up trumps.

A uniformed officer announced that security for the area was now under ‘Code Red’ – the audience filtered into the action (a bit like the first day of the January Sales). But with the jostling and getting into position, some of the impact of the ‘breaking of the ice’ motif may have been lost. Comprising striking major and minor thirds on brass and percussion, it symbolised the effect spring has on a Russian winter, a transformation so beloved by Stravinsky that he likened it to ‘the whole earth cracking’. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Gourlay did the motif justice (and the subsequently recurring ones) even allowing for the somewhat dodgy acoustics, a far cry from the celebrated Symphony Hall to which they are accustomed. First soloist in focus was Nadine Benjamin as Nadia, nostalgically remembering as if it were yesterday in Years Back how she and her husband had parted some twenty years since. As the plane with Lev docked, I had first-hand experience of how BOC productions communicate: I received a hug from one of the arrivées, who upon being asked if she’d come far, replied she was going to ‘Paradise’. Good answer! She was elated, which was more than could be said for the greeting between Nadia and Lev, the awkwardness between them after their enforced estrangement being well-handled by Benjamin and her reunited husband (Andrew Slater): hesitation by her, a nervous smile from him. Along with Yuri (Ross Ramgobin) this was ‘the family’, one of the two distinct groupings created in Tippett’s oft-denigrated libretto (the other being the younger element). The tension between Ramgobin and Slater was palpable, their only common link being their blood. Yuri’s girlfriend Gayle (Stephanie Corley) was also present there with her mate Hannah (Crystal E Williams) to meet Hannah’s lover Olympion (Ta’u Pupu’a). Corley immediately got caught up in the frenzied Olé! Olé! ticker tape welcome from the champion’s hero-worshiping fans. Although there was little opportunity in Tippett’s score (with its absence of arias) to hear the lyricism of Corley (who had been so impressive as Desdemona in the BOC production of Othello {sic}) her power and dramatic soprano capabilities were copiously portrayed. She was prepared to rough it too: having made a play for Olympion who rejected her patronising approach, his kick and her roll down the main slope were highly convincing. The watching Yuri’s bad day got worse as his body language showed and by his reference of ‘black bastard’ directed at Olympion. And there were more expletives from Yuri towards Olympion when Hannah paraded his Lonsdale-type belt for the fans approval in Yeh, Yeh, Yeh! Feelings in the airport reception were getting out of hand. In what was almost an aside, Nadia tried to understand the sufferings that Lev had undergone in captivity, and the couple did begin to rediscover their relationship. Yuri’s contemptuous What have you come here for? directed at his father, closed Act I.

The disturbances had reached the news desk and a chilly ‘All police leave is cancelled’ opened Act II.  The tribulations of the ‘family’ continued with Lev’s Who am I to bear the burdens of this world? a somewhat difficult quartet to follow under ideal conditions, but extremely difficult inside B12. Yuri, now tooled up and Gayle donned white stocking-masks ready to do battle. Temperatures among the fans were increasing, fuelled by various demonstrating factions; one such banner cleverly read RIOT FROM WRONG, along with others including RIVERS OF BLOOD and painted symbols of Power Fist; their chorus of We meet with cordial greetings seemed ironic as did its hymn-like accompaniment à la KKK. With Olympion gone to reinforce his own side, his supporters greeted him with a Hi, there, black man. This prompted a tender lullaby-like lament Stranger and Darker from Hannah, lovingly rendered by Williams as she made her bed in the boxer’s dressing gown, both literally and figuratively; her tones were in stark contrast to the harsh notes from the seven-strong CBSO percussion section and some intriguing woodwind sounds. Tippett’s music as the riot reached its climax was also interesting – the voodoo jingles of a clarinet for the Blacks pitted against the hoedown violin of leader Zoe Beyers for the Whites. There were explicit sideshows too, one depicting the rife depravity right under my nose featured a cougar granny and her toy-boy steed. The deaths of Gayle and Olympian were masked to a certain extent by the blinding flashes of light, one contribution of Giuseppe di Iorio’s powerful lighting arrangement. The corpses were unceremoniously removed (Gayle being dumped into a rubbish skip) while the wounded Yuri was stretchered away to the sound of sirens. The Police Lieutenant (Adam Green) brought a semblance of calm to the end of Act II, aided by some beautiful intervening breaks from Eduardo Vassallo on cello.

With Yuri hospitalised and attended by Doctor Luke (John-Colyn Gyeantey) and Nurse Hannah, his parents maintained their vigil in different ways. Lev dreaming of gentle breezes and reading from the poetry that had sustained him in captivity wondered why he had left his native shore; Nadia overcome by ongoing events had begun to climb the gantry stairs to her own ‘Paradise’. Accompanied by a demonstration of pill-popping flower-power, Nadia utters Who holds me tight around the waist? One of Tippett’s better lines I thought! This shift from hard reality to the metaphysical was confirmed by the appearance of Astron the messenger, whose ethereal missive was expressed in duplicate by Anna Harvey and Meili Li; all in white and clinging together on an elevated platform; their outer-worldliness was accentuated by a microphone-generated echo-effect. With the death of Nadia, Lev contemplated suicide with Yuri’s gun, pleading with Nadia to wait for him. The time had come for Yuri’s straightjacket (plaster cast) to be removed, cut away by Hannah. Reduced to his birthday suit, Yuri was dowsed down with a couple of buckets of water and helped into a dressing gown, to begin to learn to walk again. But for the moment Yuri could only slump back into his wheelchair, a context the chorus reflected on with a quotation Tippett extracted from The Tempest: Spring comes to you at the farthest/In the very end of harvest. It was sung alongside some ice-cracking noise simulation from Gourlay and the CBSO. The banners of the now peaceful demonstrations displayed their 21st century protests with such slogans: DON’T CUT FOR THE FUTURE and STOP FGM. There were also excerpts from Goethe with Lev’s Yet you will always be brought forth again, glorious image of God, and likewise be maimed, wounded afresh from within and without – words that closed the opera, heartrendingly uttered by Slater. This of course is what Tippett was driving at – the never ending cycle of conflict and resolution and of rebirth, as symbolised by the knowledge that spring will break up the ice of winter.

With BOC the excellence is in the detail and their take on Tippett’s The Ice Break was another outstanding experience. More details of this and earlier productions may be found on their website Click here


Geoff Read

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